Happy - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Happy’ demonstrates that love is magic and happiness requires work


Written/directed by:  Michael Patrick McKinley

Starring:  Leonard Zimmerman


“Happy” – “Love is magic.  You can have it.  Reach into the air and grab it.” – Afrobeta


“If you want to be happy, you have to work to make it happen.” – Michael Buckley


As “Happy” opens, we are treated to the upbeat beats of Afrobeta’s “Love is Magic”, along with the visuals of someone just starting his day.  This unidentified person turns off his alarm clock, hops in the shower, pours some coffee, puts on socks with different patterns for each foot, tightens up the bows of his high-top Converse sneakers, grabs a stack of yellow stickers and his keys, and heads outside to the warm sunshine of Augusta, Ga.


This person is an artist named Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, and “Happy” is a documentary about his story.  During 9 to 5, Leonard is a graphic designer for an ad agency.  His coworkers rave about his unique, positive energy, but – through his art – Leonard’s reach stretches far beyond the agency. 


Leonard is primarily known for his robot paintings.  His colorful, mechanical characters are sometimes placed in contemporary settings that communicate big ideas about the human condition.  For example, in one painting, a robot holds an umbrella and nervously looks up at one lone, gray cloud sitting right above its head.  Other times, Leonard might pick an iconic item of pop culture, like recreating “Sgt. Pepper” with four robots standing in place of The Beatles or a robot who doubles as a View-Master and places a circular wheel of photos inside its own head.  In addition to his robot paintings, Leonard started another project that is named after the title of this movie.  Much to his surprise, it has hugely expanded from Augusta to a worldwide stage.  He has touched countless numbers of people with his art, including director Michael Patrick McKinley.   


McKinley discovered Leonard’s art and felt inspired to make a film about the man.  Hence, McKinley now has the titles of director, writer and producer of “Happy”.  This is McKinley’s first film, and he successfully constructs an absorbing documentary over a speedy 1-hour 18-minute movie experience.  Sure, Leonard’s engaging personality, talent and work provide a rich cinematic canvas for McKinley, but this director also gets it right by including important details needed to make a well-rounded doc. 


This includes a welcoming plethora of Leonard’s photos and home movies from his childhood, probably hundreds of examples of his paintings, an explanation of his style which resembles an Ernest Hemingway quote, and spectacularly bold, plush moments from his life today.   


Of course, these images and heartwarming touches need narrative context, and McKinley includes a wide variety of artists, friends and colleagues who lend their voices and explain their positive connections to Leonard.  After just a few minutes, one realizes that they all really, really wanted to speak about the man.  One of the most memorable individuals is Rosanne Stutts, Leonard’s art teacher and very constructive mentor who immediately recognized his talent.  Leonard’s parents, Nona and Leonard Sr., emboldened him too by embracing his curiosity and imagination.  His creativity – while growing up - was not spurred by a negative environment.  Instead, his spirit came from a home of warmth and joy. 


Although be warned, the film introduces a very difficult, painful period that entered Leonard’s life and tossed him around like a Category 5 hurricane snatching, spinning and crumpling one lone leaf from a sugar maple tree.  It left him shaken to his core with no relief in sight, as the film’s bubbly pleasantries shift into moments that deflate hope. On the other hand, adversity begets growth. In Leonard’s case, this is certainly true.


“Happy” captures both Leonard’s strong foundation and winds of adversity that make up his environmental DNA.  It is a film that embraces the easy breeziness of love found through friends, colleagues, families, and partners.  It is magic.  It also spells out that no magic pill can make you a happy person.  Happiness is a choice, and one has to work to make it happen.  I have a feeling that Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman could inspire you to do the same.

(3/4 stars)  


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.